Stating that a rising star is the next…whoever…isn’t something new in Hollywood. They’re always looking for the next big thing because like it or not, the stars we grow up with eventually get old, lose their spark, their charisma, their audience. So with the release of Zac Efron’s latest film, “Charlie St. Cloud” and the passing of Tom Cruise’s 32nd film, the highly entertaining but box-office disappointment “Knight and Day”, I’m starting to hear a lot of entertainment magazines and blogs calling Zac Efron the next Tom Cruise. But it’s gonna take a bit more than a winning smile and some acting talent to fill Mr. Cruise’s rather large shoes, yes? Cruise has had an impressive run as Hollywood’s mightiest star and, despite three Academy Award nominations, one of it’s most under-appreciated actors. But Cruise is also an actor who has taken some of the biggest risks of any other actor in history…and won.
To understand the progression of Tom Cruise as an actor, one must go back to his earliest appearances in films. After making his film debut with a small part in 1981’s “Endless Love“, he landed the role of hot-headed cadet David Shawn in “Taps” (1981). The film, which also featured fellow up and coming actors Sean Penn & Timothy Hutton, received favorable reviews as did its young cast. It was Hutton and Penn, however, who were billed the next great actors of their generation (they went on to star together in “The Falcon and the Snowman” in 1985). And Cruise? Like Efron today – handsome, promising, marketable.
Cruise’s next film, 1983’s “The Outsiders” (directed by Francis Ford Coppola) would put him alongside another cast of future stars: C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, & Ralph Macchio. They were called the new “Brat Pack” and they were poised to take over Hollywood. This was more of a fit for a young Tom Cruise, no? Let Penn, Hutton, and subsequently Matt Dillon go after Oscar nominations. This new ‘Brat Pack’ can sell tickets, which is infinitely more important to Hollywood.
After starring in the ill-fated “Losin’ it” with Shelly Long, Cruise was given top-billing in his next film “All The Right Moves”, a coming-of-age story about a high school footballer (Cruise) whose ticket out of his small Pennsylvania mill town is a scholarship to a big school. The film put Cruise on the map and he then went on to hit superstar status playing an affluent sex-starved suburban teenager in the hit movie “Risky Business” (1983). Mr. Cruise had finally arrived.
After being horribly miscast in Ridley Scott’s enjoyable (well, at least to me it was) and visually stunning film “Legend”, Cruise flexed serious box-office muscle in Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” . The film grossed over $300 million world-wide and made Tom Cruise an international superstar. Still not a darling of the critics, however, but so what? Selling tickets at the box-office and having your Teen Magazine poster hung in every 15-year-old girl’s bedroom is every young actor’s dream, right Mr. Efron? Perhaps not for young Tom Cruise.
The Road Less Traveled
Well, here’s where I believe Tom Cruise decided to take the road less traveled by his fellow ‘Brat Packers’. For his next film, Cruise took a huge risk to star alongside Paul Newman in Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money” (1986). In the film, Cruise plays Vincent, a smiling, cocky, but hopelessly insecure and naïve character while Newman reprises his role as “Fast Eddie” Felson from the 1961 classic “The Hustler”. Surely, Cruise would be rendered obsolete sharing the screen with the great Paul Newman (who would go on to win his first Academy Award for “Best Actor”). This type of role was best left to the likes of Hutton or Dillon. . .no?
In a surprising turn, Cruise received the best reviews of his career. Richard Schickel of Time proclaimed: “There is a ferocity in Cruise’s flakiness that he has not previously had a chance to tap…and it carries him beyond the bounds of image, the movie beyond the bounds of genre.” Cruise’s gamble had paid off. He took his career as just a pretty-boy actor in another direction. He took a risk…and it worked.
Mr. Cruise went on to take an even bigger risk when he co-starred with Dustin Hoffman in 1988’s “Rain Man”. Now, any actor knows that when you star alongside an actor of Mr. Hoffman’s stature AND said actor is playing a character who is handicapped (or gay), you’ve got to work really hard to get noticed. Why would Cruise, still one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, want to now duke it out on screen with the likes of Hoffman?
As it turned out, the film was a critical and box-office success. Reviews of Cruise’s performance, however, were mixed. Desson Howe of the Washington Post wrote: “Hoffman blows costar Cruise right off the screen. Likable as he is, Cruise confuses spunk for performance.” While Vincent Camby of the NY Times stated: “The film’s true central character, though he’s not the center of attention, is the confused, economically and emotionally desperate Charlie, beautifully played by Mr. Cruise, even when he is put into the position of acting as straight-man to his co-star.”
Tom Cruise & Oliver Stone?
Cruise then took still his biggest career risk to date playing paralyzed Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989). Tom Cruise and Oliver Stone? Surely this was going to end badly. The film, however, garnered rave reviews and earned Cruise his first Academy Award nomination for “Best Actor”. Roger Ebert echoed my own sentiments after seeing the movie: “Nothing Cruise has done will prepare you for what he does in Born on the Fourth of July.”
But by now we shouldn’t be surprised when Cruise challenges himself, challenges us. He has taken career risks that no other actor of his generation has dared do. In 1992, Cruise went up against one of the greatest actors of all time, Jack Nicholson, in the courtroom drama “A Few Good Men”. You’re really asking for it when you want to go “macho for macho” with Nicholson (who earned an Oscar nomination for ‘Best Supporting Actor’ for his role in the film) playing a cigar-chomping, crusty Marine commander in a role Richard Schickel of Time Magazine claimed was, “…not so much played as demonized.” Yikes! But like the heroes he plays, he seems to conquer whatever comes his way with his legendary work ethic and unwavering dedication. “Working with Tom is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given by this business.” ~Steven Spielberg.
Fast forward to 1996’s “Mission: Impossible”. Cruise is cast for the first time as a lead in an action movie, a genre that can exploit even the most skilled of actors (just ask Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer or Brad Pitt). But, again, Cruise is up to the task, as Stephen Holden of the NY Times put it: “Tom Cruise has found the perfect superhero character on which to graft his breathlessly gung-ho screen personality.” The film (and it’s sequel in 2000) go on to gross almost a billion dollars worldwide making Cruise Hollywood’s biggest star.
And in 2004, Cruise took yet another huge risk playing a villain (for the first time in his career) in Michael Mann’s gritty crime thriller “Collateral”. In the film, Cruise plays the cold-blooded hitman Vincent who’s in town for the night to rub out five targets. Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer put it best in his comparison of Cruise to two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks: “As for Mr. Cruise, he’s taken something of a career risk here – almost but not quite the same risk that Tom Hanks took with his roles as the gay lawyer in Philadelphia (1993) and the mobster in Road to Perdition (2002). For one thing, Mr. Hanks has been overrated as a supposedly subtle character actor just as much as Mr. Cruise has been underrated. For another, Mr. Hanks has never played a role as unabashedly monstrous and menacing as Mr. Cruise’s Vincent.”
So, how many of us ever dare measure ourselves up to our competition? How many aspiring filmmakers fail to enter film competitions because they’re afraid of their film being rejected? Professional speakers who shy away from sharing the same stage with other speakers for fear they might be outshined? Actors that never audition for a role because they hear that another actor who they consider superior is also auditioning? How many of us fail to go after a promotion at our work because, despite confidence in our abilities, we don’t want to find out that we didn’t measure up?
Think Tom Cruise got success handed to him on a platter? Think again. This is an actor who came from a broken home (his mother left his father when Cruise was twelve, taking him and his three sisters with her). An actor who would say of his estranged father, “He was a bully and a coward.” An actor who spent his childhood on the move and by the time he was 14 had attended 15 different schools in the US and Canada. An actor who at one time aspired to become a Catholic priest. An actor who dropped out of High School and headed to New York in pursuit of an acting career despite suffering from dyslexia. “People can create their own lives.” Cruise once said in an interview with Parade Magazine. “I saw how my mother created hers and made it possible for us to survive”. Despite his many challenges, Tom Cruise created his own life…why shouldn’t we?
And Then There Was One
As for Cruise’s apparently equally talented “Brat Packers” C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe and Emilio Estévez? Their careers had long-since fizzled out. Their filmographies suggests they decided to take the easier roles, the ones they were comfortable playing. They rarely, if ever took the types of risks with their careers that Cruise had taken. And as for the careers of those “clearly” more talented than Cruise, Timothy Hutton (who actually won an Academy Award in 1981) and Matt Dillon? Their careers never reached their once promising potential. Perhaps they didn’t work as hard as Cruise did because they started to believe all the hype. Or maybe Cruise was simply the better actor all along. Only Sean Penn has remained relevant, now considered one of his generation’s finest actors. Box-office success, however, has eluded Penn throughout his career.
The German-American theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “He who risks and fails can be forgiven. He who never risks and never fails is a failure in his whole being.” But Tom Cruise did more than just take risks, he put himself in as good a position to succeed as possible by working with the types of directors that have a history of getting the best from their actors: Scorsese, Levinson, Stone, Pollack, De Palma, Kubrick, Spielberg, Mann. How often do we gravitate to those that can help us succeed? That can help us get to the next level? Cruise himself has said: “When I work, I work very hard. So I look to work with people who have that level of dedication. And I depend on that from everyone. From the director to my crews that I work with.” Take a look at the supporting cast around you – are they working as hard as you? Are they as dedicated?
Zac Efron has said that he admires Cruise’s legendary “drive” and “focus” but that he is not the 21st-century version of the ’80s star. “I’m not the next Tom Cruise because there will never be another.” proclaimed Mr. Efron. “I don’t want to go and copy Top Gun.” Top Gun? I think young Zac misses the point. Many actors have had “Top Gun” success as I’m sure one day even Mr. Efron will also – the path that leads a young actor to such success is wide and welcoming – but it’s a short road. The question is whether Mr. Efron will ever venture off that road, to a road that’s not as wide nor welcoming. The road that only those who truly believe in themselves and are not afraid to fail dare to travel. The road Tom Cruise took. That’s why I like him.
What are some of the risks you’ve taken in your life? Your career? What were the results? Any regrets? I look forward to your comments…